Through the centuries, the land we now call Israel and Palestine changed hands many times as different groups of people battled for control of the area. Over time, the establishment of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions made the land – especially the city of Jerusalem – a uniquely holy place. For about 1,000 years in the middle ages, the Arabs almost always held control of the area, and actually lived relatively peacefully with the Jews. In fact it was the Christians during their brief rule, who massacred and persecuted both the Jews and Muslims.
At the turn of the 20th century, around 1900, the idea of statehood had firmly taken root around the world and so, naturally, many Jews wanted a country of their own, but in the 2,000 years since the founding of Judaism, most Jews had left the promised land and spread throughout the world. But with the goal of creating their own country now achievable, large numbers of Jews started to come back and settle in Palestine.
World War 1 brought the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of the British, French, and Russians, giving them control of the Middle East. They divided it up, and the British were given a mandate over Palestine. With the more sympathetic British now in control, these Jewish Zionists, as they were called, seized the opportunity to accelerate their plan for statehood. But, creating a state for the Jews wasn’t really the goal of the British, who just wanted to create a government in Palestine where power could be shared peacefully by the different groups living there. And there were the Arabs who didn’t trust the British or the Jews, because many of the Arab leaders thought the British would favor the Jews.
So the Arabs refused to form any government that included Jewish participation, but before long this stubbornness grew into frustration at not being represented, so some within the Arab community turned to violence and carried out bombing attacks against Jewish settlers and started to destroy the crops the settlers were growing on their farms.
About a decade later, World War II broke out, and millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust. After the American, British, and allied forces defeated the Germans, hundreds of thousands of Jews came to Palestine, and the UN General Assembly passed a fateful plan to divide up Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states, with the all-important city of Jerusalem placed under International control, but the five members of the Arab league didn’t want the Jews to control any part of the land, so they all voted against the plan.
In May, 1948, after much planning and covert arms acquisition, the Jewish leadership went ahead and declared the establishment of the State of Israel, and quickly convinced the US Government, the Soviet Union and many other countries to officially recognize it. As expected by the Israelis, the Arab countries invaded Palestine immediately, but the Israelis were ready and were more disciplined, better trained and well-armed, and were too strong for their Arab enemies. When the dust settled, after 10 months of fighting and peace agreements were signed, Israel not only kept the whole area under the original UN plan, it controlled almost 60% of the land that had been planned for the Arab state. More than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs had also fled the fighting or were kicked out of their homes, and about the same amount of Jews migrated into Israel from Arab lands. So, you had about 1.5 million people basically switching places, making the population of Israel much more Jewish.
A generation later, in 1967, tensions were again reaching a boiling point. There had been some deadly, cross border attacks from both the Israelis and the Arabs, so Israel decided to launch a surprise invasion, and in six days, won control of the Gaza Srip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, took the West Bank and East Jerusalem away from Jordan, and kicked Syria out of the Golan Heights. Fewer than 1,000 Israeli troops were killed in the short war, but over 20,000 Arab soldiers died, went missing, or were captured. And – just like in the 1948 war – hundreds of thousands more Palestinian Arabs left. Since then, Israel’s really built up its security capabilities and constructed many settlements in these newly occupied territories, even though the UN and the International Court of Justice declared the settlements illegal under International Law.
Ten years after the war, Israel returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, and in 2005 pulled its troops and the settlers out of the Gaza Strip, but there are around 750,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. In 1993, Israel struck a deal with the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization – Yasser Arafat – and agreed to allow the Palestinians to set up a government and rule themselves in the Gaza Strip and the city of Jericho in the West Bank, in exchange the PLO recognized the right of Israel to exist.
This new Palestinian government, headed by Arafat, became known as the Palestinian Authority and was controlled by its majority party, Fatah. But not all Palestinians – especially people in the Gaza Strip – liked Arafat’s more moderate approach and so a split took place, leading to the rise of the more extremist Islamic party, Hamas, whose leaders refused to negotiate with Israel or recognize its right to exist.
In 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary election, but Fatah refused to be a minority party and a violent power struggle between Hamas and Fatah played out in the streets of Gaza. After more than 100 people died in the fighting, Hamas controlled the area, so Arafat’s successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, essentially cut the Gaza Strip loose from the Palestinian Authority and set up an emergency Fatah-controlled government in the West Bank. So today, there are two fairly different Palestines: One is the West Bank, led by Abbas and his Fatah party, who more or less coexist peacefully with their many Jewish neighbors, although Israel is in the process of building a 400 mile-long barrier along the border.
It is Abbas who is engaged in ongoing negotiations with Israel and the international community about reaching a solution to the conflict that would allow Palestine to become an independent country. The other Palestine is the Gaza Strip, which is essentially poor and mostly cut off from the rest of the world by Israel’s sea embargo and a wall that divides it from Israel and Egypt, leaving its people without many basic necessities including clean drinking water.
Gaza is very dependent on the UN and the rest of the International community for aid and is controlled by Hamas. Khaled Mashal is the chairman of Hamas, and has led the party since the 2004 assassination of the Hamas leader al-Rantisi. Mashal though lives in Qatar. In 1997 Israel tried, but failed, to assassinate him in retaliation for the bombing of a market in Jerusalem that Hamas claimed responsibility for. It’s Hamas who has been the target of repeated Israeli military actions recently – including this year’s Operation Protective Edge, which was a response to a number of attacks by Hamas against Israelis, including kidnappings and rocket attacks, both of which have been aided by the digging of many tunnels under both the Gaza-Israeli border and Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.
Hamas uses these tunnels to smuggle in weapons and money that it gets from others in the region who have an interest in destabilizing Israel’s security, like Iran. In its response to Hamas, Israel has taken heavy criticism for its destructive and vengeful air strikes that kill a high number of civilians. There are generally two ideas for how to end the conflict and give Palestinians statehood. The first, is a two state solution, where Israel and Palestine would be two sovereign countries living side-by-side.
This is the strategy embraced by many in the International community including US President Obama and is embraced by people like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. But time after time, negotiations around this solution fail because of the many issues it has to confront and resolve like what to do about the three-quarters of a million Jewish settlers in Palestinian areas, the instability of the Gaza Strip, the fact that the Gaza strip and the West bank aren’t even connected, and of course, who would control Jerusalem? These obstacles have given rise to a second, alternative solution that’s embraced by many Arab Israelis and even Jewish politicians like the newly elected President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. They think the only practical way to go is a one-state solution compromise where neither the Palestinians nor the Jewish people get exactly what they want, but would instead be unified in one single state that would ensure equal rights for all of its citizens. Proponents of this plan think it would solve one of the world’s toughest problems and remove the entire area from the criticism of the modern world.